20th Nov, 2015

Daily Mail by Brian Viner


Quirky Kate will have you in stitches: Winslet is stunning as a dressmaker bent on revenge in this black comedy

An enigmatic outsider rides into a remote one-street town, seeking vengeance. It sounds like a John Ford Western, starring John Wayne or Gary Cooper.

But Western cliches are merrily subverted in The Dressmaker. After all, this outsider is not on horseback, but on a bus, and played not by a square-jawed gunslinger type, but by Kate Winslet. We’re not in the American West, either, but the fictional Australian town of Dungatar, in 1951.

Winslet is Tilly Dunnage, who grew up in Dungatar, but as a child was forced to leave after being found guilty, if only by public opinion, of committing a murder.

She later became a successful couturier, working in London, Milan and Paris. But now she is back in the boondocks, for a reunion with her nutty, cantankerous mother, known to all as Mad Molly (brilliantly played by Judy Davis), and a showdown with the townsfolk who drove her away, and led her to think herself cursed.

Her weapon against the gossipy, scheming women of Dungatar comes in the form of swathes of silk and satin, which she first uses to dress herself, fabulously, stealing the gaze of every man during an important Aussie Rules football game. But then she starts dressing the women, too, gussying them up beyond their wildest dreams until she becomes indispensable to them.

That’s her cue for revenge, against them and their equally unlovable menfolk, who collectively represent the dung in Dungatar.

Written and directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, and adapted from a novel by Rosalie Ham, The Dressmaker won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. For quite a while I wasn’t sure if it was mine. Moorhouse’s style of direction belongs firmly to the Wes Anderson school of quirkiness, but where Anderson makes it seem effortless, she sometimes appears to be trying too hard.

Dungatar, with its resident hunchback, snob, simpleton and hunk (the last of these played by Liam Hemsworth), is too affectedly weird, rather like The League of Gentlemen’s Royston Vasey, but with possums.

Like Royston Vasey, Dungatar even has a resident transvestite, in this case the local police sergeant (engagingly played by Hugo Weaving), who rejoices in the bows and frills that Tilly brings to the otherwise dreary town.

How much you like the film depends on whether you buy into all this. Certainly, The Dressmaker asks a lot of its audience, not least in the way it keeps changing tempo, from knockabout black comedy to twisted revenge thriller to romance to tragedy and back again.

But it is never less than sumptuous to look at. Moorhouse and her veteran cinematographer Don McAlpine (who was Oscar-nominated for 2001’s Moulin Rouge) have made a visually stunning film, exploiting those strange, wide-open, almost Dali-esque vistas that Australia offers.

Moreover, Winslet and Davis are both so good, bringing genuine poignancy to the evolving mother-daughter relationship, that I found myself sucked into their strange world, even if it’s a bit much to expect us to believe in the love affair between Tilly and Teddy, Hemsworth’s character, who is not only Dungatar’s most muscular chap but also its most decent.

They are meant to be childhood contemporaries who, reintroduced as adults, fall for each other. For the record, though, Winslet is 40, Hemsworth only 25.